Transplanting the heart of the world
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Transplanting the heart of the world

IDF war vets speak in Englewood for Panim el Panim

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Colonel Geva Rapp addressing IDF soldiers.

What does it feel like to be 18, or 20, or 22, and to go to war?

Most of us, thankfully, do not know. It is one of those things that we can imagine – but we know that we are imagining it wrong.

On Monday, a group of Israeli men, most young, some Israeli-born and some olim, all veterans of Israeli wars, talked about what it felt like. They spoke haltingly and sparingly; there were no details, no heartrending stories, just ellipses where the bad stuff would have been.

The talk – at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, sponsored by that shul and Kehilat Kesher and organized by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey – featured IDF veterans from the organization Panim el Panim.

Some of the men simply introduced themselves, with brief explanations. One of them is the cousin of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the three Israeli teenagers murdered this summer, just before the war in Gaza broke out. One is a lawyer, newly graduated from Cardozo in Manhattan. One made aliyah from Perth, Australia. Some have children; some were children themselves a very few years ago.

Four others spoke a bit more. Lt. Bentzi Gross, a platoon commander who fought in densely populated Gaza, said, “You don’t understand it until you’re there. It’s like a dream.

“You go into the first house, and you see a picture on the second floor of a kid with guns. In my area we found Hamas terrorist tunnels under houses. This is for real. It is not a joke. It is something soldiers have to deal with. We educate ourselves in a moral way to deal with these dilemmas.”

His brother, Sgt. Naftali Gross, a medical student who spent the war in the emergency medical corps, said, “I remember one of the Arabs who learned beside me in medical school, an Israeli Arab, posted a Facebook status in Arabic – maybe he thinks we don’t have Google translate – and he asked, “What is the difference between IDF soldiers and Hamas terrorists? They are both baby killers.”

“So I sat with him, and I said that Hamas terrorists shoot at schools. When we attack in Gaza, we try to hit the specific people who are involved, and if other people get hurt, that hurts us. It burns us. The difference is whether your mindset is if you want to hit babies or if you want to save them.”

The other medical student had no response, he said.

At times, Mr. Gross’s work as an EMT has taken him into east Jerusalem, where at times he is met with curses, and even with thrown stones. He also works in west Jerusalem. “Two weeks ago, I responded to Har Nof, my own neighborhood,” he said. “An Israeli Arab came in and slaughtered people. It looked like the Holocaust, with men lying in puddles of blood, with tallit and tefillin.”

The lesson he takes from that is how important it is for Israel’s story to be told. Our enemies believe the lies they hear; we must counter them with the truth.

Major Shai, an IDF commander and F16 fighter pilot who wears visible tzitzit (and who does not use his last name for security reasons), said that he “saw the first movie of the tunnels” that Hamas dug, through which they planned to attack Israel. “There were 20 terrorists who came out from the tunnel. When I saw that, I remembered the Einsatzgruppen, the part of the Nazi army that slaughtered Jews in their homes.” Hamas planned to send terrorists through 30 tunnels to slaughter Jews in 30 kibbutzim on Rosh Hashanah, he said, but they were stopped. “I know for sure that we will not let them bring another Holocaust to our borders. The question is, what will prevent it?

“It all depends on what we have inside our heads.”

One of the members of his squadron is Roni Zuckerman, the first Israeli woman to be a fighter pilot, Shai continued. Her grandfather was Antek Zuckerman, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. “If the Jews in Warsaw could have known that Antek Zuckerman’s grandchild was going to be a fighter pilot in the Israeli air force…” he said, letting his sentence trail off.

Sgt. Rafael Wein, a lone soldier from Australia, said that he had been upset when he was not posted to Gaza at the start of this summer’s war. It was “a bit of an anticlimax,” after all his training, to be left behind, he said. But Hamas tunnels ended right in his territory. “Five soldiers were killed not five feet from where I was with my soldiers,” he said. Working on intelligence about where the tunnels let out, he and his men laid ambushes for the terrorists.

Panim el Panim is an Israeli organization, “founded a little under 10 years ago, at the time when Israel disengaged from Gaza,” Dov Goldman, founder and director of American Friends of Panim el Panim, said. “There was a massive amount of friction between the left and the right, the secular and the religious, and the organization was created to remind us that we are all Jews.”

The group’s mission, he said, is to teach about “Jewish unity and Jewish identity.” Most of its work is in Israel, where it teaches IDF soldiers and students in secular high schools and kibbutzim to know who they are and to take joy and pride in it. In the diaspora, it works to show Jews the truth about Israel, and of course to raise the funds that are necessary for its work.

“I like to remind people that the message we get in the media is that Israeli soldiers are violent, oppressive brutes. The soldiers who they see are sensitive, refined people. Part of what we are trying to do is show that the soldiers are fine human beings. That comes back to our core mission.”

Colonel Geva Rapp, Panim el Panim’s founder, also spoke in Englewood, and later in a phone interview.

“I was raised in a nonreligious family in Israel,” Mr. Rapp, 57, said. He joined the IDF and became a paratrooper. He left when he was 25, determined to become a nuclear physicist. “But on my way to university I had the idea that I would go to research a yeshiva, see what it’s really about. After a couple of months I became a baal teshuva, and I stayed for a couple of years.”

Then he was called back to the army. “They needed me for my skills as a commander. I consulted my rabbi, and he said that we are told that if you see someone in danger, you must go and help. That person is the nation of Israel. So I left my yeshiva, and went back for one year in the army.

“I stayed for 18 years.”

Eleven years ago, he finished that stint, but found that he could not leave fully; he has been in the reserves since then. Eight years ago, he was one of three commanders in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.”

Last summer, he said, “An Aish rabbi in England asked me to come and tell the truth about what is happening in Israel. I said that I had been home from the war for less than a month, but he said that it was crucial. So we went to London, to speak to schools in the morning, businessmen during the day, and communities in the evening.

“I asked them not to publish my schedule, but it was published anyway. I was supposed to talk to a Hillel center in London, but I was informed that I couldn’t come. There was a huge Arab demonstration. They wanted me to be arrested for war crimes.”

Mr. Rapp was tempted to stay and fight it out, but his wife, who was with him, did not want to do that, and they left, after his local Israeli consulate told him that he couldn’t do anything to get him out were he to land in jail. “So we went back home.”

There is a great deal of hate aimed at Israel all around the world, Mr. Rapp acknowledges.

“In ‘The Kuzari,’ Judah HaLevi said that the nation of Israel was created to be the heart of the world,” Mr. Rapp said. “That was 800 years ago. Today, baruch Hashem, we see in our history that there is a transplant of a new heart of the world.

“For two thousand years, there was no heart. We Jews were spread all over the world, but there was no nation. Now we are here. We have transplanted a new heart in a sick body, and it is rejecting us.

“From the very beginning of Zionism, Herzl decided that there was no chance that we would have Israel. The whole world was against us. Maybe we should go to Uganda. And then there was World War II, and we established Israel with no help from anybody. We were boycotted from the very beginning.

“That’s because the world doesn’t want a new heart. A heart that is teaching them love for all mankind and real complete peace. Not pieces of peace, but real peace.”

The war against Israel is being fought on many fronts, he said. Some are physical, and obvious – Gaza, Syria, Lebanon. Others are less so – the media, culture, international courts, publicity.

But he has hope.

“Sometimes we use smoke,” he said. “When everything is covered with smoke, we can maneuver without anyone seeing what we’re doing or understanding where we’re headed.”

He sees the attacks against Israel on all those fronts as a smokescreen. “The world is saying that when they do that, everything is okay; we accuse them of war crimes, they run away. Everything is under control.

“Meanwhile, we are building. Everything in eretz Yisrael is getting bigger and better every day.”

For more information about Panim el Panim, email Dov Goldman at dgoldman@panimelpanim.org or call him at (646) 450-5991.

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